Thursday, December 24, 2015

Contenders ’15: Memories and Confessions

You have to give the Instituto Português de Cinema credit for their patience. They produced Manoel de Oliveira’s highly personal docu-memoir in 1982, but it was only just released this year. It was intended as a final cinematic testament to be screened after the then seventy-three year-old filmmaker’s death. However, Oliveira would have the greatest second wind in movie-making history. Nearly thirty-three years, twenty-four narrative features, and numerous shorts, documentaries, and anthology film contributions later, Oliveira finally passed away. Reportedly, he had several films in active development. It is a shame we will not get the chance to see what they could have been, but at least Oliveira left us his final film, circa 1981-1982. Automatically significant due to the circumstances surrounding it, Oliveira’s Memories and Confessions screened last night as part of MoMA’s annual Contenders series.

Arguably, Oliveira’s best work was ahead of him in 1981 (when principle photography was shot)—way, way ahead—but the Portuguese auteur was clearly feeling a bit weary at the time. The authoritarian Salazar government had fallen, but Oliveira was about to lose his grand family home due to some strange financial flimflamerry. The Oliveira factory had already been occupied and gutted by its workers, leaving them mired in tax debt.

Perhaps appropriately, we first enter the Oliveira house in the company of spectral intruders, whose voiceover narration is often impressionistic and philosophical. Before long, we stumble across Oliveira typing out yet another script. Up until M&C, all his films had been written in that cozy study. It is a home with history. Designed by Portuguese modernist Jose Porto, it had been the scene of weddings, deaths, extended illnesses, and child rearing. It was also there that Salazar’s enforcers arrested the politically-averse Oliveira.

Seemingly confused by the episode himself, Oliveira revisits the scenes of his arrest and ten-day detention. He also takes us on a tour of the hollowed-out Oliveira factory and the then-working but soon-to-be-defunct Tobis Portuegesa, the nation’s last working film studio.

It is just rather strange to consider how much Oliveira would accomplish while his final cinematic statement was resting snugly in the vault. The film is like the ghost of a ghost, capturing Oliveira at a crossroads that now looks more like a mid-life stock-taking than a career summation. It is a thoughtful, meditative film, but not surprisingly, the more you know of Oliveira, the richer the viewing experience will be.

Frankly, some of the disembodied narration comes across as awkward and stilted. However, Oliveira is an engaging storyteller and the imminent loss of his home gives the film a bitter sweet end-of-an-era vibe. The lived-in elegance of Chez Oliveira also comes through in every frame. It is a small Oliveira (as opposed to the 410 minute epic The Satin Slipper that Oliveira released in 1985), but we are happy to have it. Recommended for fans of films about filmmakers, Memories and Confessions should have a lot more festival screenings to come. Regardless, MoMA’s curators clearly place it in contention, at least as a film to reckon with.